POPULIST! This is the political vogue word of the moment, a pejorative appellation presently in common use especially in the media. President Trump, the Brexit vote, both are cited examples of what is being cast as a growing tendency.
Yet the word has a more honourable past. It referred to a member of the People’s Party, founded in 1891. It had a social agenda, championing public ownership of public services and graduated income tax.
It was a manifestation in the USA of the then emerging social democratic trend represented in Britain by the Labour Representation Committee, the Independent Labour Party leading to the founding of the Labour Party.
Whatever the political strengths and weaknesses, being a populist was not deserving of the opprobrium associated with the word today. Indeed, the basic populist principle was advocating the right and ability of the common people to govern themselves.
Replace the phrase “common people” with working class and there is the essential element of socialism, the working class acting politically for itself.
So what has happened to turn populism into a reactionary tendency? The problem lies not in any particular manifesto, but in the actual principle of courting popular support. This is denial of the working class acting for itself.
Instead, the “common people” play a passive role. A political programme, radical or otherwise, is concocted by a party standing apart. There may indeed be working people involved in that party, but it is a small self-selected group deeming itself to know what’s best for the masses.
The aim is to elicit widespread support for a pre-formed programme devoid of popular input. The only role for the electorate is to vote for it and trust the party will act on their behalf. In this sense, all parties putting themselves forward for election are populist.
A current example is the Scottish Nationalist Party seizing on EU referendum vote running counter to the overall British vote. Popular discontent is to be exploited for the sectional interests of the SNP, turning the voters’ gaze away from rather more pressing economic and social problems to which the SNP do not have answers.
The Green Party in Scotland, seeing an opportunity to raise its profile, is tailing along behind the SNP, hoping to gain some popular kudos. This is where the populist motivation is problematic. Whatever its intent, it serves the political interests of capitalism by limiting the political interests of the working class.
Issues become binary: for or against independence, leaving or staying in the EU, Labour or Conservative and so on and on… And the only role for the working class, the electorate, is to choose one of the other. Proportional representation or transferable vote systems are merely variations on this essentially passive process.
A true populism must involve the working class organising itself through its own political institutions to determine how its best interests can be served. Democracy requires the popular acceptance of responsibility for playing an active part.
Otherwise it’s merely howling at and voting for selected performers strutting about the parliamentary stage in “Westminster’s Got Talent”, a popular show for the moment, until those merely watching on realise they could act for themselves.